Wake reassignment plan would move 3,200 students

STAFF WRITERDecember 7, 2010 

— Wake County school board members voted today to block consideration of most new student reassignment moves beyond the 3,224 students that staff is proposing being reassigned to different schools next fall.

Taking advantage of the absence of board chairman Ron Margiotta due to an illness in his family, the Democratic members of the board passed by a 4-3 vote a motion to exclude from consideration more than 60 moves proposed by parents. Among those moves not being considered now were those that call for sending thousands of Southeast Raleigh students to schools in their communities.

Staff hadn’t includes those moves in the plan presented today because they said they went beyond the scope of a directive passed by the board on Oct. 5 to look at making adjustments to moves that had been adopted by the old board for the 2011-12 school year.

The plan was presented the same day that federal education officials met with Wake school leaders to discuss a civil rights investigation over the elimination of the diversity policy. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint from the state and national NAACP alleging racial bias in Wake's student assignment and student discipline policies.

“For us to move in the face of this investigation to move 6,000 African American kids, not knowing what the impact will be on integration or segregation would be totally irresponsible and downright stupid,” said Democratic school board member Keith Sutton.

But after prodding from GOP school board members, the board agreed on another resolution to look at new moves that would help fill underenrolled schools which are at 75 percent or less of capacity.

Administrators said they relied on an Oct. 5 board vote that said Wake would follow for 2011-12 the final year of a three-year plan adopted by the old board. That vote, which also killed a plan to divide the county into 16 assignment zones, said some adjustments would be made to the plan.

"We adhered to the scope of the directive on Oct. 5 and the third year of the three-year plan," said Don Haydon, Wake's chief facilities and operations officer, who oversees the office in charge of student assignment.

Haydon and Laura Evans, senior director of growth and planning, said many of the moves proposed last week by three community members of the school board's student assignment committee went beyond the scope of the Oct. 5 directive.

Last week, the three community members proposed adding the reassignment of more than 6,000 students to next year's plan. Many of those moves would result in Southeast Raleigh students going to schools in their neighborhoods instead of to schools in North Raleigh, Garner and western Wake.

Some of last week's moves were incorporated into today's plan, which administrators say largely involves filling the new Walnut Creek Elementary School opening in Southeast Raleigh and relieving crowding at some schools.

In addition, administrators are recommending that Walnut Creek Elementary open on a traditional calendar. It has been slated to open as a year-round school.

Most of the moves in the plan are significantly different from the ones previously approved by the old board. If they had stuck with recommending the moves adopted by the old board, administrators said 1,479 students would have been reassigned, less than half the amount now in the plan.

Administrators said many of the moves were eliminated because the recession has slowed enrollment more than was anticipated when the plan was first adopted. They say some moves also were eliminated because it goes against the new assignment policy.

Instead, staff recommended sending a largely different group of students to fill Walnut Creek. For instance, they're now recommending moving more than 100 children who've been attending Hilburn Elementary in northwest Raleigh for diversity reasons. The move, administrators say, would allow students to go to a school that's 12 miles closer to their homes in Southeast Raleigh.

Another new move proposed by staff would mean sending 111 students from West Lake Middle School near Apex to Carnage Middle School, a magnet school in Southeast Raleigh. While the move would take away some seats for suburban magnet students, it would allow the students to go to a school that's between 10 and 11 miles closer to home.

Staff is also recommending sending those same neighborhoods out of Middle Creek High School in Cary to Southeast Raleigh High School, a magnet school. It would remove 171 potential magnet seats but get neighborhood students to a school that's 13.5 miles closer to home.

All together, 35 elementary schools, 17 middle schools and five high schools are affected by the plan.

While the scope of the staff plan is less than some would like, it's still expected to draw complaints from supporters of the old diversity policy who warn that the moves will increase poverty levels at some schools and hurt the magnet program.

Letters will be sent to families whose neighborhoods are in the plan and to those who were previously approved by the old board but who are now proposed to be dropped.

The school board isn't expected to spend much time today discussing the plan. They'll hold a work session next Tuesday followed by four public hearings in January and more work sessions. A final vote could occur Feb. 1.

The direction of student assignment has changed in Wake since four new GOP board members elected last year helped form a new majority that eliminated the diversity policy.

But GOP vice chairwoman Debra Goldman backed Democrats in killing the 16-zone plan. She also joined them in following a consensus-building approach toward developing a long-term plan.

It's uncertain how much Goldman will back the staff plan or calls from her former GOP allies to add more moves next year.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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